The politics of anti-science: Global warming, vaccines, GMOs, oh my!

I’ve gotten into quite a few arguments over whether there is more anti-science nonsense on the right or the left lately. Actually, none of these arguments have been on the blog, mainly because I tend not to relish getting into discussions that are far more weighted towards politics than actual science or medicine. Still, sometimes I see something that leads me to think about venturing into the minefield of science and politics. This has been particularly true ever since the campaign for the Republican nomination has shifted into high gear and Michelle Bachmann’s recent descent even further into pseudoscience with her apparent embrace of anti-vaccine nuttiness. That’s not even considering the anti-science positions that are de rigeur for Republican candidates. Evolution? No way! God did it! Anthropogenic global warming? Nope! Accepting global warming science displeases our corporate masters and our anti-environmentalist base! Stem cell science? Nope. That’s against our fundamentalist religion! Reproductive health issues? Abstinence, baby. Abstinence. Virtually all the Republican candidates march in lockstep, denying the science of AGW, remaining “open” to “intelligent design” creationism, and adopting a number of positions that make denying scientific knowledge not just a peccadillo but a political imperative if they want to have a prayer of being nominated. Only John Huntsman has dared to speak out about the anti-science pervading the Republican Party, and, not coincidentally, he has pretty close to zero chance of being nominated. He failed the G.O.P. purity test, part of which is to hew to conservative orthodoxy on global warming and evolution.

Indeed, just today Chris Mooney unveiled an excellent post about this very issue, namely why the right is currently far more anti-science than the left. Back in the day (say, around a decade ago), I fell for the false equivalency that the left was as anti-science as the right. OF course, back then, the equivalence wasn’t quite as false as it is today because the Republican Party and the right wing hadn’t descended quite as far into abject anti-science. True, there were fringe elements who didn’t accept evolution, but most mainstream Republicans tried their best to ignore them, and anthropogenic global warming denialism hadn’t yet become the Republican Party religion (or at least so it seemed to me). Reading Chris’ The Republican War on Science started to open my eyes, but it wasn’t really until the last three or four years that I really started to realize just how bad the Republican Party has become. When the right tries to argue that the left is just as loony, I think Chris is right on the money when he writes:

But the fringes aren’t very relevant–unless the inmates are running the asylum. That’s what you have today on the right, where Republicans and Tea Partiers overwhelmingly reject mainstream knowledge in key areas and these views are also endorsed by elected representatives and even presidential candidates.

And this is why, when you take a left-leaning science abuse issue like vaccines and autism, it is not really very significant–because the Democratic Party does not embrace this dangerous nonsense, and because, as I mentioned, many liberals and science bloggers like myself have chased it from mainstream discourse. And the same goes for exaggeration of nuclear radiation risks (just look at how a good liberal, George Monbiot, destroyed this stuff), exaggeration of human health risks from GMOs, and so on.

It turns out that the extreme “anti-science” left consists of a few isolated loons who have little political and no corporate backing, leaving them far outside the mainstream of the Democratic Party. The extreme antiscience right, on the other hand, has another name: The Republican base, leadership, and Presidential candidates. Whether the Presidential candidates adopt anti-science positions because they believe them (like Rick Perry or Michelle Bachmann) or because they don’t dare alienate their base (like Mitt Romney, who, I suspect knows better but is too craven to pull a Huntsman), the end result is the same: an unrelenting hostility to scientific knowledge that contradicts conservative beliefs. In general, Democrats don’t try to fire up their base by, for example, speaking out against vaccines or genetically modified organisms (both anti-science positions perceived as being more part of the left than the right). Indeed, as one of the commenters in Chris’s piece put it, when you start seeing Democratic senators or Representatives parroting animal rights nonsense or antivax talking-points on the House or Senate floor, then you might–I repeat, might–be able to argue persuasively that there’s some sort of equivalence between the anti-science left and anti-science right. Until then, such an argument just won’t fly.

In fact, even forms of anti-science that are widely perceived as primarily having their home on the left seem to be metastasizing to the right. I’ve already pointed out that anti-vaccine views, which again are perceived, whether correctly or not, as being primarily a left wing form of anti-science, are in fact the anti-science that cross all political boundaries. There is quite a bit of right wing anti-vaccinationism; indeed, it’s part and parcel of the “health freedom” movement promoted by General Bert Stubblebine III and Rima Laibow. If you peruse their Natural Solutions Foundation website, you’ll soon see that their big issues are “forced vaccination,” “food freedom,” and the promotion of nutrition as a cure-all. Much of the material on such pages would not be out of place on a steriotypical left-wing New Age, alt-med website.

In fact, if you want to see how anti-science traditionally considered to be left wing can be found on the right in spades, just wander on over to that wingnuttiest of right wing wingnut websites, World Net Daily. It’s not for nothing that it’s often facetiously referred to as “WorldNutDaily.” WND is home to a collection of the looniest of the right wing cranks, one of which is Chuck Norris, the karate master turned 1980s action movie star turned television star turned right wing icon. Last weekend, Norris posted an article entitled The U.S., U.N., and genetic engineering, in which he combines common right wing tropes about the U.N. and the dreaded “one world government” with fear mongering about issues traditionally viewed as the bête noire of crunchy Greenpeace activists, such as genetically modified organisms, all mixed in with “health freedom” rhetoric that could have come right from Rima Laibow:

Though regulating those maximum levels is currently prohibited by U.S. policy – because dietary supplements are not categorized as drugs, it is one more sign that global governance of our foods is right around the corner. As if American households relinquishing their health and fitness habits to Washington weren’t enough, now the entire U.S. needs to be governed by a global food and drug administration?

U.S. food policy may not acquiesce to worldwide regulations tomorrow, but global control is a slippery slope that is often yielded through small steps or so-called benign increments. The European Union has already enacted many universal food tenets into law. Could the U.S. be that far behind in this global age? If an era in which caving into international pressure is en vogue, how far behind are our food factories?

But does the U.S. really want foreign entities telling us how to eat, what vitamins to take or how (not) to label U.S. food now or in the distant future? I’ll say what I said in a previous column: I believe, the sooner we quit relinquishing our health and fitness responsibilities over to the government, and take control of our own lives, the better off we’ll be.

And Chuck really doesn’t like GMOs, either:

The added difficulty with genetic tampering and labels is that we know big business and lobbying often control the decisions in Washington. Recently that was made evident again by the actions of the USDA. Despite that tests prove genetically engineered organisms become a part of the bacteria in our digestive tracts, the ANH reported how the USDA now wants to eliminate any controls from genetically altered corn and cotton!

Rather interesting, don’t you think, how someone like Chuck Norris can so easily sound like a greenie? Even the anti-science generally associated with the left seems to have found a home in some parts of the right.

Of course, he’d never admit it, and being a greenie is in general anathema to conservatives. Indeed, another aspect of science that the right tends to attack is environmental science used as the basis for environmental regulations. Their favorite tactic is what Chris aptly called “poison is in the dose” games in which arguments over what the maximum safe level of an environmental pollutant is nearly always devolve into conservative think tanks and critics accusing environmentalists of exaggerating the risk trying to tar them with the “anti-science” label simply because they take a more cautious view of what constitutes a safe environmental exposure. And, yes, sometimes environmentalists do overstate the danger of certain environmental pollutants. Indeed, these days I’ve started to suspect that this might well be the case with BPA. However, I still tend to trust environmentalists a lot more than I trust industry to do the science and develop guidelines.

I’ve said it many times, but what the heck? I’ll say it again. I used to be a lot more conservative politically than I am now. Even though I was an independent and never declared for a party, I tended to vote pretty reliably Republican, except when I lived in Ohio and voted for John Glenn for Senate, which was pretty much the same thing as voting Republican. Then, about ten years ago, something changed. Whether it was me or whether it was the Republican Party, I’m not sure, but to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, I didn’t leave the Republican Party. It left me. And its increasing hostility to science is one big way in which the Republican Party left me.